Ultrasound: Facing the question

I went to my twenty-week ultrasound full of nervous excitement. The odd flutterings I’d come to associate with fetal movement were joined by the average emotional butterflies. I was eager to get a glimpse of the tiny person growing inside of me, but also nervous. While I tended to think of the ultrasound as an opportunity to get a cute little snapshot of my offspring in progress, in the back of my mind I was aware of it as a diagnostic tool ready to report any deviations from “normal” development.

“Do you want to know the sex?” the ultrasound technician asked , pushing the sensor hard into my side.

Before my pregnancy, I swore I’d say no to this question. I liked the idea of a surprise, I wanted to resist the idea that knowing the genitalia of my future child somehow would let me know the child’s true essence, and I dreaded the influx of pink or blue baby gifts that such knowledge would inevitably inspire. Before an egg met a sperm in the winding halls of my fallopian tubes, Hassan and I had chosen the name Morgan–nicely gender neutral (although strange pregnancy superstitions had us calling the fetus Magnus until near the end of my third trimester).

But in the weeks leading up to this moment, I’d changed my mind.

“Yes,” I nodded. Partly the words of a pregnant coworker kept returning to me–“If someone else has information about my baby, I want to know it too.” It did indeed seem odd to ask the ultrasound technician to keep secrets from us. And even if I don’t want to buy into the Foucauldian notion of sex and truth, at that point I wanted to know every little insignificant thing about my baby.

But in the end, it came down to pronouns. We were tired of referring to Magnus as “it.” While I am generally in favor of “they” as a gender neutral singular, I didn’t want to let its plural connotations into my womb. One fetus was enough, thank you very much.

“It’s a boy”

I let one tear slide out of the corner of my eye before I smiled.

Sometimes I look down at my son sleeping in my lap and I fear the man he will grow up to be. Specifically I fear that he will grow up to be The Man, heteropatriarchal white capitalist oppressor extraordinaire. In my mind’s eye he has grown into a massive caricature of masculinity with biceps the size of my thighs


Book Review Feminist Parenting edited by Dena Taylor

Feminist Parenting: Struggles, Triumphs & Comic InterludesFeminist Parenting: Struggles, Triumphs & Comic Interludes by Dena Taylor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Edited collections are always difficult to rate because inevitably some of the selections are better than others. This particular volume is difficult to evaluate fairly because it is so dated–published in 1994, most of the authors are writing retrospectively about raising children in the 1970s. Needless to say, both mainstream culture and feminist thought have changed in the intervening years. Nevertheless, many of the concerns remain the same. How do we raise our daughters to have the self confidence to pursue their dreams whether or not those dreams are considered gender appropriate by mainstream society? How do we teach them to navigate a world that will judge their worth based on their worth based on impossible beauty standards? How do we raise our sons to be empathic, compassionate people? How do we teach them to recognize and reject the temptations of patriarchal privilege? How do we educate all our children about institutionalized inequalities of all kinds: how to name them and how to fight for a more just world?

Feminist Parenting contains the personal accounts of women from a variety of races, sexualities, and class backgrounds. Many of the essays are written by single mothers whose feminism inspired them to leave husbands uninterested in gender equality. Absent from the collection are any trans voices, and indeed one mother writes about her anxiety when her young son enjoyed wearing make up and dresses. Given the time at which the volume was published, the absence of trans voices is perhaps not surprising, but the omission makes the book weaker nonetheless.

I rated Feminist Parenting at three stars because I feel that it could have benefited from more thorough editing. The editor seemed to be more interested in compiling essays from as many contributors as possible than in seeking high quality submissions.

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Nothing much, these days

The scene is the Walker Memorial building on the MIT campus, the occasion free weekly swing dancing. It is the first time I have gone out to have fun without Morgan since his birth, and while I have the utmost confidence in Hassan’s caregiving abilities I’m feeling a little twitchy, like I’ve forgotten something important. I have to remind myself several times that going out and having a good time is not a guilty pleasure–I am allowed to take time for me.

As the sonorous opening notes of Summertime fill the hall, I ask a man to dance. In between spins and swing outs we exchange names and he asks me the most basic question of small talk, which leaves me stammering, unprepared.

Male swing dance partner: “So are you an MIT student or are you working? What do you do?”

Me: “Not much at the moment. I just had a baby six weeks ago.”

MSDP: Oh! That’s weird.

Me: Yeah it is.

MSDP: So where is this baby?

Me: Home with daddy so I can get out of the house.

As soon as this conversation is over, it begins to haunt me. I’ve pulled on a persona like a cloak, stepped into the role of Frazzled Mother to put myself in a box that maybe this young engineer can understand.

In our culture, what do you do is coded language for who are you. The answer given must be short and must name your avocation. Our identity is written in our position in the paid labor force or in the structured educational environment that prepares us. Because I am neither working or studying I flounder at the question and give an answer that makes me cringe. These days, not much.

Not much, just sustaining the life of another human being. And yet to answer “what do you do?” with “I’m a mother” feels forced and wrong. Being a parent is not like being an engineer or a teacher or a taxi driver. It isn’t something you clock out, shut the office door behind you, and walk away from. It is more than a livelihood, it is a life.

 And while I have happily named my identity in the past as Graduate Student, or Toddler Teacher, I haven’t worked up the confidence to answer with Milliner, Artist, or Writer–all of which are things I do but am not really paid to do (although you can buy my hats). I don’t want to identify as a Mother in the same way, with the capital letter working overtime to define me. I insist that there is more to me that that. Is it because I have internalized patriarchal norms that seek to divide me into a private and a public self, that declare relationship based identities as subservient to economic and political selves? Or am I feeling a feminist rebellion against the housewife model and resisting patriarchal norms that see women as inherently creatures of relationships, who do not need the same kinds of self definition that men do?

Probably a little of both. Indeed the root of the problem is buying into a system that believes I can encapsulate my identity in one word, no matter what word that is.

Book Review: At the Breast by Linda Blum

At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United StatesAt the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States by Linda M. Blum

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a culture where breast feeding is almost universally touted as the cure for everything from low IQs to allergies to breast cancer, Linda Blum provides a much needed critical voice into the discussion of breast feeding in the United States. She begins by placing the current public health campaign to increase breast feeding in the United States within a historical context that has seen a variety of infant feeding practices receive medical endorsement. Unlike most of the literature on breastfeeding, which centers around the infant, At the Breast focuses on breast feeding from women’s points of view. While she does not contest the validity of medical research that demonstrates health benefits of breast feeding, she locates that research within raced, gendered, and classed ideologies. Blum did research with the mostly white middle class mothers of Le Leche League who have been a driving force behind the breast feeding movement, with white working class mothers who generally wish to breast feed their babies but are often unable to do so due to a lack of support, and with working class African American Women who tend to reject breast feeding in favor of infant feeding strategies that are more compatible with the networks of female support women draw around themselves.

At the Breast is a vitally important book because it counters the prevailing belief that women who choose not to breast feed their babies simply aren’t educated about breast feeding’s benefits. Instead, women make decisions about how to feed their babies based on a number of factors. While breast feeding advocates will present breast feeding as a perfect solution–free, convenient, and healthy–Blum acknowledges the experiences of the women she interviewed that demonstrate that for women who cannot or choose not to live up to the ideal of the exclusive mother, the formula (provided free with WIC)that one’s mother, friend, or partner can feed the baby is a much more convenient and liberating choice.

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Art Interlude: Postpartum–a self portrait

Postpartum by Celeste Bocchicchio-Chaudhri

For those of us who come to parenting through pregnancy and childbirth, part of making sense of our new role and identity as Mother is confronting the changes to our bodies. Here, in oil pastel on paper, is my tribute to my postpartum body: lopsided breasts, stretch marks and all.

Given the media obsession with celebrity moms who sprout tiny round baby bumps, have their babies, and then sport bikinis in bodies suspiciously unmarked by pregnancy, I think it is important for those of us who don’t have (or want) an army of plastic surgeons at our disposal to celebrate the beauty of our changing bodies.

I think my stretch marks look like flames.

Why Feminist Parenting?

This is my family:

We are almost embarrassingly normative–(mostly) white, middle class, a married man and woman with our new infant son. My husband works in an office downtown. Every morning after we have a cup of tea and breakfast together, I kiss my husband goodbye and, settle into my rocking chair for a full day of nursing, burping, and diaper changes.All I need is a ruffly apron for the scene to be from a 1950s sitcom. Or at least I should be wearing a shirt.

So, given that this picture of domestic bliss, why am I writing a blog about parenting beyond gender normativity? In part to keep the domesticity of my bliss from driving me crazy. We fill these normative gender roles for many reasons–a society that offers astronomically expensive day care as the only alternative to staying home, cultural values and ideals about gender that we have internalized despite ourselves, and to some degree personal preferences. The goal of this blog is to provide an analytical space, to engage in parenting as a reflective practice, and to confront bias and stereotype in our family and our society so that our son grows up to think critically and to speak truth to power.

I can only write from my own subject position, although I strive to consider intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability in writing and acting for social justice. I would love to have other writers with other backgrounds contribute as well. If you have thoughts about raising children as a social justice project, I’d love to hear from you. To become a contributor, email me at celesteb at umich dot edu

Milinery Marvels–LaPetiteMenagerie

Deck of Cards Pillbox hats by LaPetiteMenagerie            

Artists draw their inspiration from the things they see around them, and milliners are no exception. It takes true talent to take the everyday and turn it into something extraordinary. That is why I am so impressed with the millinery work of Shelby, the creative mind behind LaPetiteMenagerie. Most of us have a deck of cards sitting around our house somewhere, but how many of us would look at those cards and say “Let’s take this and make it sexy”?  But that is exactly what Shelby did with her Deck of Cards series of pillbox hats. Each hat is constructed in buckram and wire, covered in black and white leather, and then decorated with rhinestones and veiling. I challenge each of my readers (and myself) to look with new eyes at the things we see around us and see if we can find some new inspiration in them.

Model – Kitty Kosmo
Photographer – Luminous Lizzy
Hair & MUA – Sarah Rochelle
Corset – Sweet Carousel
Photo used with permission from Shelby of LaPetiteMenagerie